A Daytrip from Vienna or Graz
Austria's foremost place of pilgrimage, the home of its national shrine, is so beautifully situated that a daytrip there from either Vienna or Graz is worthwhile for the scenic splendor alone. As a bonus, you can visit a magnificent basilica of great religious and historical significance, ride to the top of a mountain for panoramic views, and take a short hike or steam-tram ride to a lovely lake. The town itself is a year-round resort, with many pleasant diversions.
Located in a snug valley between mountains in the northernmost reaches of Styria, Mariazell began its long history as a venerated site on December 21, 1157. According to tradition, that's when five monks set up a lonely priory in the forest, erecting a statue of the Virgin that was soon thought to be performing miracles. A pilgrimage church was built in 1200, and in 1377 the king of Hungary attributed his victory over the Turks to the Virgin of Mariazell, beginning a tide of pilgrimage that has not ceased to this day. For many centuries, it was this cult that enhanced the union of Austria with the Hapsburg dynasty. Today's visitors are drawn not only for devotional reasons, but also for the sheer natural pleasures this small resort offers. Railfans coming by train from Vienna will find this to be a particularly enticing trip.
Trains from Vienna leave the Westbahnhof (West Station) frequently for the 45-minute ride to St. Pölten, where you change to the old narrow-gauge Mariazellerbahn, built in 1905 and still one of the most scenic mountain rail lines in Austria. Trains on this line depart several times in the morning and early afternoon, taking about 2½ hours to reach Mariazell. Return service operates until late afternoon. Check schedules in advance as there may be changes. W: Oebb.at and W: mariazellerbahn.at. Trains from Vienna's Westbahnhof may be moved to the new Hauptbahnhof in 2011 or so.
Trains from Graz leave fairly often for Bruck an der Mur, where you change to a bus for Mariazell, a two-hour ride.
By Car from Vienna, leave on the A-1 Autobahn and head west to the St. Pölten Sud exit, then take the B-20 south into the mountains. Mariazell is 138 km (86 miles) southwest of Vienna.
By Car from Graz, take the A-9 Autobahn north, then the S-35 to Kapfenberg, followed by the B-20 north, a total distance of about 150 km (94 miles).
Mariazell flourishes all year round, although a few minor sights are closed in winter. The historic steam tram operates on weekends and holidays, from July through September. The local Tourist Office, T: (03882) 2366, W: mariazell.at, is at Hauptplatz 13, to the left of the basilica. Mariazell is in the Land of Steiermark and has a population of about 2,000.
This trip could be combined in the same day with the one to St. Pölten (page 62).
FOOD AND DRINK:
Some especially good choices in Mariazell are:
Jägerwirt (Hauptplatz 2, directly across from the basilica) Traditional Austrian fare with an old-fashioned country atmosphere. T: (03882) 23-62. €€
Café Goldener Löwe (Hauptplatz 1a, across from the basilica) Austrian and Italian dishes, indoors or out. Check out the upstairs men’s room. X: Mon. T: (03882) 2444. € and €€
Edelweisshütte (Atop the Bürgeralpe, a short walk from the upper cable-car station past the observation tower) A rustic Alpine retreat with indoor and outdoor tables. T: (03882) 42-55. €
Brauhaus Mariazell (Wiener Strasse 5, just north of the Hauptplatz) Home-brewed beer and local dishes. X: Tues. T: (03882) 4255. €
Numbers in parentheses correspond to numbers on the map.
For those coming by train from Vienna, the Mariazell Train Station (1) is a pleasant 15-minute walk along a path marked Bahnhofpromenade into the town proper. Follow Ludwig-Leber Strasse past the parking lot and bus station (for those arriving by bus or car), turning left on Grazer Strasse to the Hauptplatz, or main square. Rising in front of you is the great:
*BASILICA (2), T: (03882) 25-950, W: basilika-mariazell.at. Church open daily 6 a.m.-8 p.m. Free. Treasury open May to late Oct., Tues.-Sat. 10-3, Sun. 11-4. €.
Mariazell’s great basilica grew out of a pilgrimage church of 1200. The present structure dates from the 14th century, but was greatly enlarged and altered during the late 17th century. Its appearance may seem rather strange, what with two squat, bulbous Baroque towers flanking the original Gothic spire and porch. Inside, however, it is a triumph of the Baroque style, resplendent in its elaborate plasterwork and paintings. The main focus of pilgrimage, the *Gnadenkapelle or Chapel of Miracles, is in the center of the nave. A silver baldachin designed in 1727 by J.E. Fischer von Erlach the Younger shelters the original 12th-century statue of the Virgin of Mariazell, or Magna Mater Austriae, the Austrian national shrine. The silver grille around it was donated in 1756 by Empress Maria Theresa.
Beyond this is the High Altar of 1704, a famous creation by Austria's master of the Baroque, J.B. Fischer von Erlach the Elder. The Treasury (Schatzkammer), up a few steps, has a wonderful collection of votive offerings dating from medieval times to the present, along with valuable items of ecclesiastical art.
A path leads uphill from the rear of the church to the Kalvarienberg (Mount Calvary) (3), passing Stations of the Cross and a display of mechanical nativity figurines.
Return to the Hauptplatz and follow Wiener Strasse for two blocks to the lower station of the Bürgeralpebahn Cable Car (4), which quickly lifts you up to the 4,150-foot-high *Bürgeralpe Plateau (5) for a bird's-eye view of the surrounding mountains and lakes. A sham-medieval observation tower, just up the path, allows you to climb above the tree line for an even better look. Several invigorating forest strolls following marked trails can be taken from here. In winter this becomes a popular ski area, especially favored by family groups. Cable car round-trip €€.
Back in town, continue down Wiener Strasse to the Heimatmuseum (Museum of Local History) (6), featuring rustic room settings and folk arts from times gone by. Tours: May-June, Wed. at 2:30, Fri. at 10; July-Sept., Mon., Tues, Thurs., Sat. at 10, Wed. at 2:30, Sun. at 10:30. €€.
The route on the map returns you to the train station in about 10 minutes. From there, you might want to make a side trip of about two miles to the Erlaufsee (7), a lovely lake surrounded by impressive mountains. While this makes an excellent walk, if you happen to come on a weekend or holiday from July through September you could ride there on the delightful *Museumstramweg instead. Running with open cars from the train station to the lake, this claims to be the world's oldest remaining steam tram and, along with the train ride from St. Pö1ten provides a memorable experience. W: erlebnisbahn.at. There is also bus service to the lake. Ask at the tourist office for current schedules for both.
Text and map copyright © 2008 by Earl Steinbicker